It was spring of 1945, and the Second World War was coming to a decisive conclusion. Germany had surrendered, and Hitler had committed suicide. In addition, Italy had begun working out the details of its surrender with Allied diplomats. Japan, however, refused to surrender. Even after the decisive American victories at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, Japan’s Emperor, Hirohito, refused to give in to the Ally’s demand for “unconditional surrender.” Japan’s defiance forced United States’ President Harry Truman to make the most important decision of his presidency: whether to give the order to invade the Japanese mainland or use the atomic bomb. President Truman, after many months of careful consideration and countless meetings with his Secretary of War Henry Stimson, decided to use the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This decision involved four major justifications: use of the atomic bomb would end the war successfully at the earliest possible moment, it would achieve diplomatic gains in the growing rivalry with the Soviet Union, it would satisfy America’s hatred of the Japanese and it would satisfy the need for Americans to avenge the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
As the war continued into its fifth year, the war for Europe was “successfully ended by the use of what are now called conventional means,” but the war in the Pacific still needed to be drawn to a close, and as quickly as possible (Stimson 98). Truman and his administration believed that “only complete destruction of her [Japan] military power could open the way to lasting peace;” however, there were several options for ending the war. Truman’s first attempt to end the war involved convincing Japan to surrender under the new conditions of the surrender document (Stimson 101). The Japanese believe that “unconditional surrender would be the equivalent of national extinction, and there are as yet no indications that they are ready to accept such terms,” however, “it appeared that Japan might surrender at any time depending upon the conditions of surrender” (“Command Decision” 504-505). On July 26, 1945, the Allies issued the Potsdam Proclamation to Japan. It was an opportunity for Japan to surrender immediately or face “prompt and utter destruction” (Nobile 53). However, due to political opposition from American Senators and Congressmen to weaken the terms of “unconditional surrender,” Secretary of State Byrnes eliminated all reference of the possibility that Emperor Hirohito could retain the throne. In addition to this elimination, all references to the atomic bomb and the Soviet’s entry into the war were also omitted. As a result of these changes, the proclamation was not effective in changing the position of Japan’s government.
After this failed attempt at diplomatically ending the war, a military invasion of the Japanese mainland now seemed to be the most viable solution to ending the war as soon as possible. This plan, however, was predicted to be very costly and dangerous. Sean Malloy believes that the bomb was used to avoid “a million casualties, to American forces alone and enemy casualties…much larger than our own” (162). Stimson was informed that such an operation might be expected to cost over a million casualties, to American forces alone. Additional large losses might be expected among our allies and, of course, if our campaign were successful and if we could judge by previous experience, enemy casualties would be “much larger than our own” (McKain 141). However, the ground invasion still posed the question, “whether this kind of action would induce surrender” (McKain 141). Stimson, in his memorandum for the president, questioned:
[if] there are any alternatives to such a forceful occupation of Japan which will secure for us the equivalent of an unconditional surrender of her forces and a permanent destruction of her power again to strike an aggressive blow at the ‘peace of the Pacific’. (McKain 142-143)
Stimson, who ultimately convinced Truman, that “there is enough such change [to surrender] to make it well worth while” (McKain 143). The reality behind Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb was that the bomb would be favored over an invasion.
President Truman based part of his decision on post-war politics. Truman and his advisers knew there were alternative ways of ending the war in the Pacific but deliberately went ahead with dropping the atomic bomb because of the perceived diplomatic advantages. From the very beginning of Truman’s Presidency, Secretary of War Stimson advised him that the atomic weapon “might be useful in post war diplomatic disagreements with the Soviets” (Nobile 40). The atomic bomb allowed the United States, in the following months after Japan’s surrender, to follow a strategy of “atomic diplomacy” in dealing with its war-time ally the Soviet Union. In addition, Truman believed that “the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe” (“Command Decisions” 510). In essence using the atomic bomb would intimidate the Soviets. In a letter from the Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy to President Truman, McCloy recommended the following:
The time now and the method now to deal with Russia was to keep our mouths shut and let our actions speak for our words. The Russians understand them better than anything else. It is a case where we have got to regain the lead and perhaps do it in a pretty tough and realistic way. (Roleff 120)
Secretary of State James Byrnes more than anyone else inside the Administration, supported Truman’s hopes that, “the bomb…might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war” (Nobile 40).
Truman’s decision to drop the bomb was also based on his belief that he would be support by a majority of the American public because it satisfied their hatred of the Japanese. Japan throughout the war and “Probably in all our history, no foe had been so detested as were the Japanese” (Nobile 17). This great disgust for the Japanese stemmed from Japan’s treatment of prisoners of war (POWs), and use of kamikaze pilots on the American Navy. Treatment of prisoners in Japanese camps varied, although it was always very poor. Prisoners were known to have been thrown off cliffs or used for bayonet practice. The infamy of Pearl Harbor was enough:
But to it were soon added circumstantial accounts of Japanese atrocities at Hong Kong, Singapore, and finally and most appallingly, upon American prisoners in the Philippines…Emotions forgotten since our most savage Indian wars were reawakened… (Nobile 17)
The use of Japanese kamikaze pilots as a weapon against the United State Navy and Air Force was an addition source of anger. This “unconventional” military tactic “confirmed Japanese fanaticism and every navel battle was now a fight to the finish” (Nobile 9). This tactic was so successful that several thousand kamikaze planes were set aside for an invasion of the Japanese mainland that never happened. By the end of the war, kamikaze pilots had destroyed thirty-six US war ships and killed over 5,000 sailors. Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb could have been justified out of hatred for the poor treatment for American POW, and the use of kamikaze pilots as a military tactic. and the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor (<http://www.trumanlibrary.org/index.php>; McKain 28-35).
Revenge was also a source of motivation for Truman to drop the atomic bomb. Americans regarded their Pacific enemy as a nation of treacherous and inhuman fanatics. Wartime advertising and propaganda portrayed the Japanese as sub-human “monkey-men,” vicious rodents, or venomous insects especially for their surprise attack on the United States’ naval base at Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack resulted in the death of nearly 2,500 service men, and the destruction of many of the United States’ aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft (“Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was Dropped;” Roleff 88-89). Ultimately, the American public supported Truman’s decision because it quenched their thirst for revenge against Japan.
“I did what I thought was right” Truman responded, when asked a question regarding the decision to drop the atomic bomb (“Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was Dropped”). Truman justified his position that using the atomic bomb on Japan was completely necessary because it would end the war successfully at the earliest possible moment, it would achieve diplomatic gains in the growing rivalry with the Soviet Union, it would satisfy America’s hatred of the Japanese and it would satisfy America’s desire for revenge. It has been argued in recent years if the atomic bomb was truly justifiable, according to Stimson, Truman’s Secretary of War:
In light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose [ending the war] and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face. (Stimson 106)
The main goal of President Truman, once accepting the office of president, was to end the war in the shortest amount of time and with the fewest American lives lost. Truman was able to accomplish this goal through dropping the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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Nobile, Philip. Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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Roleff, Tamara L. The Atomic Bomb. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.
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Truman Library. 20 Jan. 2009. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. 24 Jan. 2009
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